Thirteen-year-old Mellie Turpin once declared to her kindergarten class that she had a fairy living in her bedroom. But before she could bring him in for show-and-tell, he disappeared. Years later, she is still trying to live it down, taunted mercilessly by classmates who call her “Fairy Fat.”
Her imagination got her into this. She’s determined to keep it turned off.
When her parents inherit an inn and the family moves to a new town, Mellie sees a chance to finally leave all that fairy nonsense behind. Little does she know that the inn is overrun with...you guessed it. Oh brother.
There's no such thing as fairies, she keeps telling herself. And if there were, they wouldn’t hurt a fly.
So, what did I ask about? Click here to find out more about
SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS is what I think of as "realistic fantasy"--I love when authors borrow elements from the real world to root their fantasy in reality! Why did you choose to use Latin, Charlemagne’s knights, and baroque magics to distinguish Small Persons with Wings?
First of all…thanks for interviewing me, Dawn! And thanks for existing, Inkpot.
I, too, love fantasies in which the real world butts heads with magic, so it was a given that this fantasy would be set in the real world and borrow heavily from established myth.
The story evolved from the character of Durindana, one of the Small Persons, who flitted into being after I quit my job to write THE UNNAMEABLES, my first book. I missed the camaraderie (and distractions!) of a newspaper office, and found a replacement online in a private international forum initially devoted to the Harry Potter books, although it evolved into a social network. We entertained ourselves sometimes with comic role-playing, and the character I developed for myself was a hapless, overdressed fairy who kept bumbling in and causing trouble.
I became so fond of the fairy that I decided to turn her into a book. As I developed back story, I discovered that her people hate being called “fairies”—they prefer Small Persons with Wings. They got to know humans in Roman times and adopted Latin as their base language. Their home was in France until they followed Mellie’s family to the U.S. They are fond of opulence, and were particularly taken with the court of Louis XIV—hence the baroque influence.
Their first royal friend was Charlemagne, whose legends have always entranced me. One tale revolves around a ring that helps a person see through enchantments, so I appropriated that. Archbishop Turpin, one of Charlemagne’s knights, is said to be the author of the original tales. I like authors, so I adopted him as Mellie’s ancestor and gave her family his name.
I admit that, once the back story was established, I was happy for the chance to introduce readers to a few Latin words—and French, for that matter. When possible, I chose words that sounded like their English counterparts, hoping an occasional reader would get curious about how our language evolved. I think it’s tragic that so few schools teach Latin these days—even the little I remember from high school has enriched my life, and I never would have made it through the SATs without it.
Ha! I can relate to that! And what I most liked about your MC was that Mellie was an incredibly relatable character. I think you nailed that "going to school the day after" feeling that makes Mellie so sympathetic and why we want to know her story. Was there an instance in your own life you borrowed to capture that moment?
Not a specific incident—just my entire childhood. I was a complete dork and clodhopper, but for the first part of my school career I didn’t know that yet. I was always telling some joke that fell flat or otherwise making a jerk of myself in front of my peers. I finally noticed my own dorkiness in about grade four or five, and it took years before I learned to embrace it. I distinctly remember the feeling of starting to talk and deciding halfway through that this was not going to end well. Self-fulfilling prophecy!
Aww. I think we all know that feeling growing up. And I like the fact that while Mellie is sympathetic, she's not without faults (along with the rest of her family), which makes them seem like three-dimensional people instead of flat characters. What made you decide to tackle issues like self-esteem, bullying, and alcoholism in a fantasy book?
I really didn’t decide—those issues came with the characters. The very first image that flashed into my mind for this book was a disheveled Durindana sleeping it off in her fluffy pink bed in the chandelier, a nip bottle of bourbon at her side. (That told me right off the bat that this was not going to be a Disney-esque fairy tale.) The questions of why she drank the bourbon, and who gave it to her and why, gave rise to the other self-esteem and addiction problems that come up in the book.
As soon as I heard Mellie’s voice in my head I knew she would be a target for bullies. She was clearly going to be most comfortable with adults, and wouldn’t know how to deal with other kids. Cruelty can snowball when a kid is a little different from his or her peers—I experienced that from both sides when I was growing up. Mellie wouldn’t know how to deal with that, and she wouldn’t be inclined to ask for advice. My web site urges kids to tell an adult if they’re being picked on, but that’s a tough case to make sometimes.
Yes! Words have power and they're powerful in your book. Slang and nicknames even more so. Magic folk become Small Persons with Wings & Mellie gets a few nicknames of her own (both from kids at school and the Small Persons). What does this say about Mellie and what does this say about those who "name" her?
The power of Naming seems to be a theme in my writing—it’s a major factor in THE UNNAMEABLES, as you can tell from the title. Naming a thing or a person—or yourself—is a bid for control, an attempt to alter reality or keep it in line. Mellie’s seeing two extremes of that: At school, she’s “Fairy Fat”—not intended as a compliment— while at home everybody’s name honors what her family considers an illustrious past (mostly from the Charlemagne tales). By the same token, the Small Persons want to be Parvi Pennati (a diminutive of “Small Persons with Wings” in Latin) rather than the more run-of-the-mill “fairies.” They call Mellie “Turpina” partly out of fondness but also as a reminder of the thousand-year-old relationship between the Turpins and the Parvi.
This book’s all about the interplay between illusions and reality. Names, it seems to me, fall somewhere in the middle: Calling something one thing doesn’t make it another, but can alter perceptions. Call a swan a duck and it’s still a swan…but maybe it’s a more humble swan. Work it the other way and maybe you have a supremely confident duck!
Fidius was Mellie's first Small Person friend when she was little and when the relationship changes, it changes Mellie dramatically. Why do you think early friendships are so powerful?
Fidius comes into Mellie’s life when she’s very young, so everything is new and shiny and interesting. She hasn’t found out yet that things aren’t always what they seem, so she believes Fidius when he says he’s her friend. Then he deserts her and subjects her to humiliation. That’s a difficult lesson for a kindergartener, and it’s quickly reinforced by her classmates for a lasting impression. Such a strong lesson in your youngest years can be hard to unlearn later.
That brings me to your character, Timmo. Timmo is a new friend...maybe. When Mellie's family moves, it's a chance for things to change, but Mellie's problem is that Mellie acts the same towards everyone else. Why is it hard for Mellie to make new friends?
Because of her experience with Fidius and her classmates, Mellie doesn’t trust people very easily. Even her grandfather was mean to her when she was young, and her parents told her an important lie. Even though she has every intention of turning her life around after the move, her instincts work against her.
Mellie is able to solve her own problems -- from family challenges to Small Persons with Wings to bullying -- without someone needing to rescue her, but she still accepts support and doesn’t try to do it "alone", which makes her, in my mind, a strong character. What is the one thing that gives her strength?
Mellie’s home life gets pretty rocky in this book, but the one thing that’s never really in question is that her parents love her and think the world of her. Even when they’re fallible and offering her no practical support at all, their affection and high opinion is a firm hand at her back. It was important to me not to make this a Bad Parenting book, even though Mellie’s parents do let her down at times. I think they’re good parents considering the pressures on them, and have provided her with a firm and loving foundation.
Thanks again for the interview, Dawn…these were fun questions to think about!
Thank you, Ellen! And thanks for writing a new kind of "Small Persons" tale!
To learn more about SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS, follow Ellen on her blog at www.http://ellenbooraem.blogspot.com.